Facing the Anthropocene

Facing the Anthropocene – fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system by Ian Angus. Published by Monthly Review Press, October 2016 at £15.99, and reviewed by Alan Thornett.

The first passage of the last chapter of Ian Angus’s excellent new book on the Anthropocene published last week says the following:

“The Holocene is over. The Anthropocene has begun. That cannot be reversed. The climate change already underway will last for thousands of years. No currently available technology can restore extinct species to their former abundance. The acid in the oceans cannot be removed. Many glaciers have melted and much polar ice is gone for ever. The oceans will continue rising.”

This is the passage that, for me, best encapsulates the core message of this important book is about. The ecological and climate crisis we face today is not just another issue amongst many that we have to face but a planetary emergency that we ignore at our own peril and that of generations to follow.

This book is the best I have seen, from a Marxist point of view, on the issue of the Anthropocene and its implications for life on this planet. It combines a clear warning of the scale of the crisis we face with a well-informed exposition of what the Anthropocene is and why we need to take it seriously.

It is an unequivocal declaration the Anthropocene is here, at that its implications, in terms life on this planet, including our own, are dangerous in the extreme, and that it now determines the framework in which the struggle to save the biosphere of the planet as a habitable space now takes place.

The idea of the Anthropocene, Angus explains, was first advocated in 2000 by the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J Crutzen—who won the Nobel Prize in 1995 for his pioneering research on stratospheric ozone depletion—and Eugene F Stoermer, a biologist from the University of Michigan. It involves the division of the Earth’s 4.5bn year history (into eons, eras, periods and epochs) is determined by a body called the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, which is administered by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

Crutzen and Stoermer argued that the impact of modern humans on the planet and its biosphere is now of such an order that the current geological epoch, the Holocene (the interglacial period), which has existed for the past 11,700 years, should superseded by the ‘Anthropocene’, or the ‘age of humans’.

Practical steps towards adoption of the Anthropocene began in 2009 when the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), comprised of 38 Earth systems scientists (and of which Crutzen is a member), was asked to study the proposition and make a recommendation.

The AWG recently concluded its deliberations and reached a decision, by a majority of 35-1, to recommend the adoption of of change to the Anthropocene. This recommendation will now go to its parent body—the Sub-commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS). If it is supported there it will then go to the SQS’s parent body, the International Commission on Stratigraphy. It will still need to be ratified by the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences—and by a 60% majority.

The implications of the AWG recommendation, Angus says, are that ‘Earth has entered a new epoch, one that is likely to continue changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways.’ That is not an exaggeration he says, ‘it’s the central conclusion of one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken, one that requires us to think about our planet in an entirely new way’. (page 29)

It is written in three parts and part one deals most directly with the Anthropocene. Part one in particular offers both a remarkably clear explanation of the Anthropocene concept itself and a detailed (almost blow by blow) account of the process by which the AWG came to its decision.

The Anthropocene has only been a live issue amongst those on the ecological left for a few years but has moved rapidly to the centre of the ecological debate. Ian Angus, I suspect, could hardly have imagined when he started work on the book that the debate would have reached the current stage as soon as it has or that the AWG would have made a positive recommendation in favour of the Anthropocene by the time his was published.

Angus discusses the Anthropocene within the framework of an impressive analysis of the depth and character of the ecological and climate crisis itself. I was pleased to see that he has based this assessment around the concept of the nine ‘planetary boundaries’ developed between 2007 and 2009 by an impressive group of Earth system scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University.

They set out to identify those ‘planetary boundaries’, or Earth system processes, that are the most crucial in maintaining the stability of the biosphere of the plant. The results of their studies were published in 2009 in the journal Ecology and Society in a paper entitled ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’. In my opinion, this is the best work that has been done in terms of setting out the full scope of the crisis and identifying the points where catastrophic breakdown is likely to take place.

This also ensures, amongst many other things (and Angus does it very well), that the biodiversity crisis, and the mass extinction of species event through which we are passing, the sixth extinction, is given its full significance. This is not, as I have argued in the past, always been the case in the writings of Marxist ecologists.

I don’t agree with everything in the book. There are for example several brief references to the issue of the rising human population of the planet, with which I don’t agree. This is something that Ian and I have debated in the past.

I might also have a different take regarding the ‘starting date’ of the Anthropocene. I have no problem with identifying mid-20th century (in what is termed the great acceleration) as the starting date on it—as the AWG recommendation does. I can understand why geologists want to pin it down in this way since it is the way geologists work.

For me, however, the destructive impact of modern humans on the biosphere began a long time before the Great Acceleration in the mid 20th century and in fact a long time before the onset of the industrial revolution. I would rather see it as a much longer term which culminated in a qualitative change in the middle of the 20th century.

The importance of the book, however—and why I would strongly recommend it to all those struggling to defend the planet against environmental catastrophe—is that it engages the most important discussion that is taking place at the moment on the future of the planet and diverse life, including ourselves, that it currently supports.

My FI comrade Michael Löwy describes it, in his endorsement of the book, as:

An outstanding contribution, not only for understanding the nature of the Anthropocene and its deadly consequences for human life, but also for explaining its social and economic causes. Ian Angus shows that the catastrophe is not inevitable: that there is a possible alternative, based on values of human solidarity. It is indispensable reading for ecologists, socialists, climate change activists and rational human beings in general.

I think Löwy gets it spot on.

Ian Angus is the editor of the online ecosocialist journal Climate and Capitalism. His previous books include To Many People? Population, immigration and the Environmental Crisis (with Simon Butler) and The Global Fight for Climate Justice.

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